47HMany startups are mesmerized by PR.

It is seen the silver bullet that will magically drive success – be it brand awareness, customers, a competitive edge and notoriety.

Truth be told, PR simply doesn’t work for most startups, especially those battling to achieve a product-market fit and traction. While the potential benefits of PR are seductive, it can also be a waste of time and money for startups, leaving them disappointed and disillusioned.

Bottom line: most startups shouldn’t bother with PR because it’s a recipe for failure.

The biggest problems with startups and PR have much to do with resource allocation and timing. In the scheme of things, leveraging PR should be low priority for startups given the returns can be uncertain.

Rather than betting on PR, most startups need to focus on product, sales, customer engagement and storytelling.

First, product is king, regardless of how well a startup does marketing or PR. A crappy product kills a startup sooner or later…likely sooner.

Second, sales (or attracting users) needs to be a key focus to establish the traction needed to attract partners and/or investors, or revenue to drive the business forward.

Third, startups need to build customer loyalty and communities to nurture long-term revenue, fans and evangelists.

Finally, startups must tell great stories (aka marketing). They have to figure out who they are, how they’re unique or different, and the value they offer potential customers. Then, they need to figure out where to tell these stories, and create content (videos, case studies, one-pagers, Websites) to reach target audiences.

If a startup can successfully juggle these balls and generate momentum, then it can explore the idea of doing PR. Even then, one of the key considerations is whether a startup can handle media, blogger and analyst outreach internally as opposed to hiring a PR agency or specialist. (In a recent post on VentureBeat, Kevin Leu offered up five reasons why startups should do their own PR.)

So what’s the secret to successful outreach? It simple: relationships.

If a startup wants the spotlight, it has to build and nurture relationships with reporters, bloggers, influencers, analysts, conference organizers, etc. This can happen through social media, blog comments, emails featuring ideas or trends, attending conferences, meeting for coffee, etc.

In other words, you’re looking to create a network to tap down the road as opposed to “cold calling” when your startup is looking for coverage.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember about PR is it hinges on relationships. When a company hires a PR agency, it is buying a Rolodex. It’s an investment in people who can get a reporter, blogger or analyst to give them the time of day, a powerful attribute when hundreds of other startups are battling for the spotlight.

Here’s another reality: PR isn’t cheap and there’s no guarantee of coverage or a return in investment. Even if a startup truly believes it has a great story to tell, it may, at best, generate a “meh” or “interesting but….” from reporters or bloggers who have better options to explore.

If a startup is going to consider hiring someone to do PR, it should make it a short-term relationship around a specific goal such as a corporate launch or product development. I’m talking, at most, two or three months. And if a startup is working with a limited budget, it makes complete sense to use an experienced individual or a boutique.

If things work out, a startup has a new partner they can use down the road. If things go pear-shaped, a campaign can be written off as a relatively painless short-term investment.

Before anyone accuses me of being anti-PR, there are lots of ways that it can deliver value and meet a company’s needs, particularly if it is more established. For startups, however, PR can a challenging proposition that should only be entertained when a lot of other things are rumbling along.

For more, check out John McCartney’s post on what makes for good PR. Chikodi Chima has some thoughts about when it’s too early for startup to begin the PR process.

For startups looking to jump-start their marketing, I provide strategic and tactical services – core messaging, brand positioning, marketing strategies and content creation.